Which Essay Format – APA, MLA, Harvard or MHRA?

Generally, in terms of referencing and essay format, there are four main conventions or styles that apply. These are the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Harvard and the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) systems. When a student is writing an essay for a specific discipline or institution, it is important to know what essay formats that particular discipline or department uses. A college tutor might request any one of the styles mentioned above or they may specify an entirely different one. Many faculties and institutions provide style sheets setting out the formatting style they require.

Additionally, it is possible to get detailed style guides from the Internet or in a college library and/or you can get the MHRA Style Book (published by the Modern Humanities Research Association) for a reasonable price from most good book stores. The paragraphs below describe the most important elements of the four main styles. You can get more detailed information about each essay format from the sources mentioned above.

The APA essay format uses a parenthetical style where the references in an essay’s body are placed in brackets with the following details: surname of author, publication date and the page number(s). References should always be placed at the end of the sentences where they appear and before the period (full stop). In an APA-style bibliography, items are listed in alphabetic order according to the last name of the author. The following details should be included in each entry, in the order shown: the surname of the author, the first initial of the author’s first name, the publication date (in brackets), the book title, publication place and the publisher’s name. Close attention should be paid to the entry’s punctuation because this is all part and parcel of the system.   

The MLA style also uses parenthesis where the references in the body text are placed in brackets and linked to full bibliography citations in a separate section at the end of an essay. The bracketed reference within the essay’s text should only contain the author’s last name and the page number(s) being referred to e.g. (Smith, 24). Where an essay quotes two works or more by one author, then a short version of the book title should be included to show which work is being referenced. With an MLA style bibliography, items should be listed in alphabetic order according to the surname of the author. Each bibliography entry should include, in this order: the full name of the author, the book title, publication place, publisher’s name, and date of publication. Close attention should be paid to how punctuation is used in the entry because this is also an integral part of the MLA essay format.

The Harvard style uses parenthesis too. To apply the proper essay format according to the Harvard system, bracketed references in the body text should include: the surname of the author and the publication date. The cited works page should be titled ‘References,’ and the list of citations should be written in alphabetic order according to the surname of the author. Otherwise, references follow the same contention as the APA style. 

Out of each academic essay format described here, the MHRA style is the only one where references do not appear in brackets in the body text. Rather, references in this system are denoted by superscript numbers e.g.¹ where the references relate to a series of notes at either the bottom of the page (footnotes) or in a separate section at the end of the essay. The reference notes contain full details of the article or book being referred to.